Prime Minister Hun Sen’s call on Tuesday to strengthen cooperation among ASEAN members to protect the rights of migrant workers echoed recent comments by rights groups who say further protections are necessary as the 2015 deadline for an integrated economic community looms.
As that deadline approaches, an increase in regional labour flows has been accompanied by a steady stream of reports regarding large-scale human trafficking from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia into Thailand, and the abuse of Cambodian and Indonesian maids in Malaysia.
Sinapan Samydorai, president of NGO Think Centre and convener of a Singapore-based task force on ASEAN migrant workers, said a “new deal” is needed in which the rights of workers are enforced, laws and policies harmonised with international labour standards and social protections assured for workers and their families.
“ASEAN aims to evolve into an integrated economic community by 2015, but the challenge is to draft and agree to a legally binding ASEAN Framework Instrument on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers,” he added.
Assistant director of the ASEAN Social Welfare, Women, Labour and Migrant Workers division Mega Irena said the development of just such an instrument was “ongoing”.
At last year’s summit in Bali, leaders had tasked labour ministers to continue their work to implement the declaration, including a “phased approach in the development of the instrument, starting by focusing on issues which are comfortable to all ASEAN member states”, she said.
According to Irena, the 2007 Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of Migrant Workers “mandates ASEAN countries to promote fair and appropriate employment protection, payment of wages and adequate access to decent working and living conditions for migrant workers”.
It states that the obligations of sending and receiving states, as well as the commitment of ASEAN member countries.
Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Thailand receive more labour than they send, while the reverse is true for Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos, according to the findings of the 2011 ADBI-OECD Conference on Labour Migration.
Bruno Maltoni, project coordinator at the International Organisation for Migration, said the declaration was a milestone.
“It is quite interesting to see migration slowly becoming a key item in the ASEAN agenda,” he said.
ASEAN would be increasingly involved as a regional body in supervising migration, he added.
“A few years ago, the negotiations and bilateral agreements were mostly on a one-to-one basis; in the future, ASEAN will probably be more involved on regional frameworks in order to guarantee an improvement of the labour migration management,” he said.
But other actors said ASEAN was moving too slowly to protect workers.
Advocacy officer of the Cambodian Working Group for Domestic Workers Natalie Drolet called the declaration “just a piece of paper that has not been put into practice”, as a framework had not been adopted to implement protections for workers.
This was a need that was becoming increasingly urgent as the establishment of the economic community would mean an increase in intra-regional migration, she said.
The possibility of trafficking and labour exploitation in the absence of proper protections was another concern raised by rights groups.
Samydorai said employment opportunities abroad were pushing governments to seek bilateral or regional agreements that would see more employed in neighbouring countries.
But the high costs and complex policies involved for job-seekers often forced many to become undocumented migrant workers vulnerable to abuse, he added.